Pursuit of Truthiness

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Archive for the ‘James’ Bookshelf’ Category

Cod

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The book is surprisingly great, mostly because I learned even more about history than about fish. Above all, that a lot of the original exploration of the North Atlantic was for fishing purposes; the Vikings were catching cod on their way to Greenland and North America and the Basques many have discovered America before Columbus and simply not told anyone so as not to give away their best fishing spot.

There was also some adventuring the other way by cod fishermen; in 1876 one sailed  across the Atlantic solo on a dare, from Gloucester to Wales. Later, another crossed the Altantic not only solo but single-handed, having previously lost his hand while cod fishing.

“The year after the Plymouth landing, 1621, while the Pilgrims were nearly starving, ten British ships were profitably fishing cod in New England waters”

Though the Pilgrims themselves were slow to recognize the value of marine resources- “In 1622, Bradford reported with shame that conditions were so bad for the settlers that the only ‘dish they could presente their friends with was a lobster'”

Once they finally did, “In Cod [New England] had a product that Europeans wanted…. this is what built Boston…. by the eighteenth century, Cod had lifted New England from a distant colony of starving settlers to an international commercial power.

“The entire Newfoundland economy was based on Europeans arriving, catching fish for a few months, and taking those fish back to Europe….. typical of the difference between New England and Newfoundland, Newfoundland imported Jamaican rum for local bottling, and still does, wheras New England imported molasses and built its own rum industry.”

 

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Written by James Bailey

September 25, 2018 at 12:43 pm

Shoe Dog: Founding Nike

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Many people recommended Phil Knight’s memoir about starting Nike; I found it entertaining and surprising. At first it seemed more like a cross between The Graduate and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance than a business book.

It turns out that Knight didn’t set out to make Nikes, but rather to import existing shoe brands from Japan back in the 1960’s when Japan was a low-wage country. He had that idea in an entrepreneurship class at Stanford; his class project on it got an A, unlike every other business I’ve heard of that started in a classroom.

Knight says that he wasn’t a natural entrepreneur or CEO, and was terrible at sales and negotiating. So many of the key moves on the way to Nike becoming a multi-billion dollar company seem like blind luck. They only started making their own shoes 7 years into the business, then called Blue Ribbon Sports, after their Japanese supplier threatened to cut them off. A lot of key steps were taken by the first full-time employee, Johnson, without Knight’s knowledge or only after Johnson spent weeks persuading Knight- running their first ad, opening their first retail store, the very name Nike (Knight wanted to call the new shoes “Dimension 6”).

While I always saw Nike as driven by marketing and branding, the early executive team was made up almost entirely of accountants and lawyers; Knight actually worked elsewhere full time as an accountant and accounting professor through the early years of the company. Nike also seems to have driven a lot of true innovation in the shoes, much of it coming from co-founder Bill Bowerman (Knight’s college track coach).

I read this immediately after The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz’ book about founding a tech company that sold for a billion dollars, and saw a lot of commonalities. Both founders thought they weren’t natural CEO’s, made lots of mistakes, and spent much of their time under extreme stress, convinced the business was within weeks of failure. To some people this might seem like encouragement to start a business (if they succeeded without knowing what they were doing, maybe you could too) but to me it was another indication that I’d never want to run a large business even if I were good at it (which I wouldn’t be). I always thought that the initial startup would be the most precarious time, but once you had millions in revenue and dozens of employees you’d feel more secure, like the business had made it and would be sticking around. In fact the existential crises seem to keep coming- key partners pulling away, new competitors emerging, a lawsuit, a threatening letter from the government, financiers cutting you off or making demands.

Another commonality was the importance of personal relationships within the company and with key customers and suppliers. Knight makes it sound like his executive team were his closest friends, drinking together every night. Any time one big company is doing a deal with another big company, there is usually one person on each side who is the key decision-maker, so it makes sense that they spend time together face-to-face. In Nike’s case, this meant lots of travel between Japan and the US. In Horowitz’ case, this meant spending $6 million while in a cash crunch to buy another company so that they could give away its software free to make that one guy (who from the outside was only a mid-level executive and not the obvious person to deal with) happy.

Both thought vulgarity and management not taking themselves seriously were important. “How many multimillion dollar companies can you yell out “Hey, Buttface” and the entire management team turns around?”

For Knight, a key to success was finding a cause he believed in, so that work didn’t feel like work:

Driving back to Portland I’d puzzle over my sudden success at selling. I’d been unable to sell encyclopedias, and I’d despised it to boot. I’d been slightly better at selling mutual funds, but I’d felt dead inside. So why was selling shoes so different? Because, I realized, it wasn’t selling. I believed in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in. People, sensing my belief, wanted some of that belief for themselves.

Written by James Bailey

September 11, 2018 at 2:40 pm

Brainiac, by Ken Jennings- Highlights

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“If I’d had my way, this would have been just another quickie C-list celeb cash-in, full of my shallow ghostwritten thoughts on why tolerance is good and pollution is bad, filled out with some baby pictures and holiday recipes.”

In fact, in addition to telling the story of Jennings’ time on Jeopardy, it is a fascinating history of trivia, and exploration of whether and how trivia can be useful. Much of this is about quiz bowl:

“Quiz bowl has become a de facto farm club for the big-time game shows… when I took the written test at my Jeopardy audition, I remember thinking how much more arcane and elaborate a quiz bowl question on each of the fifty covered subjects would have been. I felt like a runner who’d been training in high-altitude Mexico City, just to get his lungs in such supercharges shape that events at lower elevations seemed like a piece of cake.”

“I’m no trivia superhero- at every college quiz bowl tournament I ever played in, there were other players who could double my score….I got lucky.” You and me both, Ken.

Quiz bowl prepares people well for answering questions correctly, if not necessarily for the other parts of being on TV: “List the five cleverest, most charming things about yourself! Do it in one sentence! Be funny!”

“Jeopardy, by its own contestant rules, is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. If you get a cramp in the last mile of a marathon or don’t quite make it up Everest, there is always next year. but you only get one shot at Jeopardy, and odds are you’re going to lose that very first game. Jeopardy is a shark, mowing through America’s self-declared intelligentsia with its huge, shiny teeth, claiming victims at the implacable rate of two a night (check local listings). You have to be in pretty good shape to escape the teeth for a night or two, but they get everyone eventually.” Way to end this on a high note…

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be anymore.”

Written by James Bailey

July 2, 2016 at 5:28 pm

Pope Francis and Economics: A Partial Reconciliation

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It is always easiest to evaluate the views of others by fitting them into pre-existing categories. When Pope Francis released his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, many people pegged him as saying “left-wing economics good, free markets bad”. This lead to celebrations on the left and denunciations on the right. Some thought him to be showing ignorance of, or even Pope Paul V vs Galileo style hostility to, economic science.

https://www.nationalreview.com/sites/default/files/cover_overlay_20150907.jpg

After actually reading much of the encyclical, I found it much more nuanced. In particular, the Pope seems to be deeply ambivalent about the welfare state, warning of those who exploit the poor for their own political interest. He would much prefer that people earn a living through work:

“Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses”

“it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives”

Of course, he does want these workers to be earning a “just wage”. While many readers will assume this implies a government-mandated minimum wage, Francis doesn’t go there; one could just as well expect that he is encouraging just wages through increased human capital, tax credits, employer generosity, or something else.

He is generally supportive of private property and business:

“The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good”

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”

Like many on the left, the Pope is worried about inequality. But his reason for worry isn’t really about the distribution of material goods, so much as the social distance that economic inequality can create:

“the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of
spiritual care”

“No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own
lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard
in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles”

For those worried about his Argentine background:

“I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism.”

He concedes a role for science in figuring out how best to do all this, though it does sound like he wants to make economics oikonomia again:

“Economy, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole.”

In any hundred page document, it can be too easy to cherry-pick quotes. Indeed this is what I have done here, if only to balance the much larger number of pieces that cherry-picked the quotes that seem to be from another side. But real people are usually more complex than a one-dimensional political spectrum.

Written by James Bailey

April 15, 2016 at 4:56 pm

Thoughts on Crime and Punishment

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  • Is Raskolnikov the least likeable protagonist of all time?
  • Great illustrations of what real poverty is like
    • Regular hunger, only one set of clothes (rags), turning to theft and prostitution
    • But not all sympathetic portrayal; one man drinks himself into poverty. Raskolnikov simply does nothing all day rather than work. Disdains going into business but then turns to murder.
    • Murder is hard to cover up when you are that poor! Have roommates, can’t afford a weapon and so must steal it, can’t throw away bloody clothes because they are your only set
  • Interesting half-parallel between Marmaladov and Raskolnikov. They both spend a lot of time wallowing in self-pity over their own weakness. M’s weakness is drinking away all his money while his kids go hungry. R’s “weakness” is having a conscience that tells him murder is wrong.
  • I’m not above being continually amused by funny Russian names
  • TVtropes seems surprisingly good at identifying the themes of this great work. (Attention conservation warning: TVtropes link)
  • Dostoevsky understood tobacco way earlier than medicine did!
    • “AH THESE cigarettes!” Porfiry Petrovitch ejaculated at last, having lighted one. “They are pernicious, positively pernicious, and yet I can’t give them up! I cough, I begin to have tickling in my throat and a difficulty in breathing. You know I am a coward, I went lately to Dr. B__n; he always gives at least half an hour to each patient. He positively laughed looking at me; he sounded me: ‘Tobacco’s bad for you,’ he said, ‘your lungs are affected.’ But how am I to give it up? What is there to take its place? I don’t drink, that’s the mischief, he-he-he, that I don’t. Everything is relative, Rodion Romanovitch, everything is relative!”
  • The book is interesting and readable, lots of subtlety but while reading it wasn’t clear to me why this is considered one of the all-time greats
    • This may be because it is hard to appreciate how original things were in their own time when they have since been heavily imitated. A bit of research seems to back this up
    • Many characters seem overly dramatic/histrionic
      • This may have been because Dostoevsky had a pretty dramatic personal life- spared execution at the last second thanks to a letter from the tsar; has his first seizure upon learning of the death of his father
    • I assumed throughout the whole book that Raskolnikov was a satire of Nietzsche’s ideas about ubermensch; then afterward I realize the book was published in 1866 and Nietzsche’s first publication was in 1870.

Written by James Bailey

January 15, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Operation Paperclip

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I just finished the great book of the same name by Annie Jacobson. I had heard of the program that brought Nazi scientists to America, but didn’t realize how big it was- several hundred scientists- or just how complicit in the holocaust many of the scientists were- from the slave labor that built Werner von Braun’s rockets, to medical experiments on unconsenting prisoners, to high positions in the SS, to straight up murder.

Nazi science shows the amazing things that can be accomplished with tons of money, no bureaucracy, no morals, and an endless supply of slave labor. Rockets, chemical and biological weapons all went from ideas to mass production in a few years. Most of the medical “experiments”, though, seem more like simple torture than attempts to learn anything.

The Paperclip program is classic example of Crisis and Leviathan- war (WWII) and the threat of war (Cold War) lead to bigger government and more relaxed moral standards. If we don’t do it, the Russians will.

I definitely didn’t realize the interaction between a lot of the craziest shit our military / intelligence / industrial complex was doing at this time. Paperclip scientists were involved in MK-ULTRA, Bluebird and Artichoke, dramatically accelerating the US chemical and biological weapons programs, and in dispersing pathogens in the US.

It was Richard Nixon that unilaterally shut down the US chemical weapons program in 1969- well done. Nerve gas is scarier shit than I realized. Even Hitler never used it, though they had thousands of tons of tabun. This makes Saddam Hussein, and our support of him during the Iran-Iraq war, look even worse.

One big lesson that I take from the book, though the author never mentions it- the importance of institutions. Almost all of the scientists who did the worst things in Nazi Germany ended up being successful, ethical scientists in the US, once they were placed in a system with very different incentives. In fact, the Paperclip scientist who did some of the worst things for the US, Fritz Hoffmann, was one of the only anti-Nazis in the program; but he was working in weapons areas where the US military had the fewest moral qualms at the time.

Annie Jacobson does a great job turning history and original historical research into an informative page-turner. My one disappointment with the book is in its moral dimension. Jacobson claims to dodge the question, saying that the morality of the paperclip program is up for each individual to decide. But she is always implying that it was a bad idea, while avoiding a real discussion. In particular, she never brings up the obvious analogy to the everyday criminal justice system. In one sense, Paperclip was an amazing rehabilitation program; there was almost no ‘recidivism’ among the scientists. But it certainly failed to exact retribution on bad actors, and may have created a deterrence-reducing moral hazard effect (perhaps knowing of such a program will lead others to commit crimes they would otherwise be afraid to). How valid was the argument that ‘if we don’t take them, the Soviets will’? Would the US and the world really be a better place if we had hung Werner von Braun and co as war criminals instead of letting them join NASA and help get humanity to the moon?
Science is power- both for what it allows humanity as a whole to do, and for scientists themselves. When governments realize the power of your ideas and abilities, you can get away with a lot. Nazis, Soviets, Americans, British, French all realized this- more than they do today. You’d think we would at least have standing visa offers to all scientists who aren’t war criminals, after expending so much money and effort to get those who are.

Written by James Bailey

August 5, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Wolf in White Van

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People were always saying how ugly Southern California was, especially when they came back from their summer vacations. They said it looked plastic or fake or whatever, and talked about all the cool things they saw in Ohio, where their grandparents lived. Or in Pennsylvania. The wall behind the arcade was made of giant sparkling white bricks, just like all the other buildings connected to it. There was graffiti on it, indecipherable gang writing. It was dark now and getting a little cold and then the super-bright lights they have behind stores to keep bums from sleeping by the dumpsters came on, and I thought, people who don’t think Southern California is the most beautiful place in the world are idiots and I hope they choke on their tongues.

John Darnielle, lead singer of The Mountain Goats, has successfully made the rare transition from songwriter to novelist with his new book, “Wolf in White Van.” The book’s protagonist has halfway grown up from being a misfit teen with troubled relationships and an obsession with the dark and fantastic. Pushing through mental illness, seeking solace in things like satanic rock and hitting the arcade with a girl also fleeing her family- it is not hard to draw connections between the world of the novel and songs like This Year, Amy AKA Spent Gladiator, and The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.

As you might expect from one of the best lyricists around, the book is strongest at the level of sentences and paragraphs, which are often beautiful and revealing. But the larger structure of the story, which jumps back and forth through time while largely flowing backward, does work. Darnielle sets up mysteries and gradually, slowly reveals answers, with a few still left to work out by the end.

Recommended.

Written by James Bailey

June 6, 2015 at 4:25 pm